The Art of Ukemi & the Premortem: What Skateboarders Can Teach Business Leaders

Tired of the same old kaizen, chaku chaku, and pecha kucha? Good. Allow me to make an addition to your ever-growing, Asian-influenced, business lexicon:


The roots of Ukemi mean "to receive" or more commonly in martial arts, to be on the receiving end of a throw. The idea is you've prepared not just for success but also for failure (or to be thrown), and can react accordingly. The word, and associated technique, came to mind as I recently scanned across Fox Sports and came upon a skateboarding competition.

The competitors, who, no doubt, were some of the best in the world, had to consider that even at peak performance they were going to be imperfect. Tricks would miss. Falls would happen. This was the nature of the beast.

And yet, because they had prepared in advance for the unexpected, every participant responded to their missteps by falling in ways that kept them in the game. Put another way, they were on the receiving end of a throw, and because they'd accepted and considered this in advance, they let their anticipation guide them through the fall, to the extent it was often anything but. As opposed to a calamitous crash (which, there was no shortage of opportunity for), each had a well choreographed response that showed practice and dexterity. 

In a turbulent year of business, I question why we're not collectively doing a better job of preparing our companies, our teams, and ourselves, for the inevitable falls that we too will experience. And thus, a very simple notion has bubbled to the surface: 

The premortem

You're surely familiar with postmortems. But, what if like the skateboarders, we gave ourselves room to assume failure would come, and as opposed to only analyzing a failure after the fact, we did some preparation in advance of an effort ever taking place.

The notion isn't particularly radical, but it's nuanced in an important way. If we give our companies, our teams, and ourselves some breathing room to discuss what may go wrong with a given product, process, or program, and allow those answers to reveal themselves in a safe ecosystem, the responses may surprise us.

Surprising only because, as social scientist and author Gary Klein has pointed out in much of his research, the very issues that derail myriad efforts, are often the same hurdles that can be uncovered during a premortem - completely in advance of a product or program ever launching. And thus, by knowing a fall is coming, and tackling that issue before it ever happens, you can adjust and amend accordingly.

It's such a simple and practical idea, and yet, it's something that requires a confident leader that can endorse the notion of failure and embrace it. Thinking about the future as anything but positive is against our nature (just look at this visual display) and I'd argue our business culture has only pressurized our laser focus on success. Perhaps these are a few reasons Ukemi and the premortem still rest out on the fringes. 

And yet, intuitively, we all know issues will arise. Perhaps we need leadership with the confidence of skateboarders to accept that falls will come, and only when we prepare for them, can we put ourselves in better positions in the long run.